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Synopsis

Triangle is a poignantly detailed account of the 1911 disaster that horrified the country and changed the course of twentieth-century politics and labor relations

On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people-123 of them women. It was the worst workplace disaster in New York City history.

This harrowing yet compulsively readable book is both a chronicle of the Triangle shirtwaist fire and a vibrant portrait of an entire age. It follows the waves of Jewish and Italian immigration that inundated New York in the early years of the century, filling its slums and supplying its garment factories with cheap, mostly female labor. It portrays the Dickensian work conditions that led to a massive waist-worker’s strike in which an unlikely coalition of socialists, socialites, and suffragettes took on bosses, police, and magistrates. Von Drehle shows how popular revulsion at the Triangle catastrophe led to an unprecedented alliance between idealistic labor reformers and the supremely pragmatic politicians of the Tammany machine.

David Von Drehle orchestrates these events into a drama rich in suspense and filled with memorable characters: the tight-fisted “shirtwaist kings” Max Blanck and Isaac Harris; Charles F. Murphy, the shrewd kingmaker of Tammany Hall; blue-blooded activists like Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan; and reformers Frances Perkins and Al Smith. Most powerfully, he puts a human face on the men and women who died on March 25. Triangle is an immensely moving account of the hardships of New York City life in the early part of the twentieth century, and how this event transformed politics and gave rise to urban liberalism.

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